Pay attention to the aging billboards and old health department posters that sprinkle many African cities and you'll see it: The old way. Those fading ads are like timeworn fossils reminding us of what we once thought would be enough to get people to care about HIV...fear.
The messages were meant to be clear and to the point. Beware, we were told. Be careful. AIDS will kill you if you are not. And eventually, with the well-meaning encouragement of international supporters, African leaders honed that message into warnings that AIDS kills the economy, too.
But, as we have too painfully learned, fear has not been enough. Indeed, some think such campaigns even helped create the crippling stigma that still surrounds AIDS. "It's the way, I think, this whole HIV thing was presented to us as a country," an HIV positive South African man once told me when explaining why he kept his infection secret from everyone in his life.
It's not good enough to go to schools, to go to these workplaces and clinics, to put up posters saying, AIDS kills, please take a condom. AIDS kills, please take a condom. What about the people that are already infected?
Those charged with educating the public about the AIDS epidemic have begun asking themselves that question as well. How do we get the word out without worsening the stigma?
Better yet, how can we educate in a way that not only encourages safety but actually wears down stigma as well. Increasingly, the agreed upon answer is something called social marketing.
Public education and advocacy campaigns on issues ranging from the environment to the American war on drugs have long used social marketing, employing celebrity and pop culture to both gain and hold the attention of audiences particularly young ones.
South African Broadcasting Company's Three Amigos campaign offers one of the best examples. The 15-to-60 second ads feature three animated condoms performing as goofy characters Dick, Shaft and Stretchin... scenarios intended to teach about safer sex. "Animating three condoms and personalizing the means to safe sex" creates the type of suspension of disbelief required for a shift in mindset, the ads producers explain on their website, www.threeamigos.com. Through the genre of comedy, viewers of both sexes, irrespective of sexual preference or age, are presented with a new and positive image of the condom.Jarring loose ingrained preconceptions about sexual behavior and biases about people living with AIDS is even easier when you combine the entertainment approach of Three Amigos with celebrity.
While political and religious leaders sway both policy and public opinion, celebrity stars that ordinary people already look up to can help people take ownership of the epidemic.
It's one thing for a president to tell teenagers to consider the health dimensions of their sexual lives; its another for Baaba Maal to sing it. And from Western television personalities like Oprah Winfrey who just completed a high-profile tour of Zambia to learn about children orphaned by AIDS to West African musician Youssou NDour, more and more celebrities are getting involved.
Last December, on World AIDS Day, MTV launched a global suite of AIDS awareness programming with a massive Cape Town concert. The November 29 event featured performers from 50 Cent to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and MTV offered free rights to broadcast it to stations globally. BBC World Service broadcast it via radio to 150 million global listeners.
The event was part of the Nelson Mandela Foundations new music-based awareness campaign, dubbed 46664 after Mandelas prisoner number on Robbin Island. In addition to the World AIDS Day concert and a website www.46664.com the campaign is marketing a CD and DVD packed with celebrity performers, and funneling the proceeds into Mandela's AIDS work. It's a far cry from an ominous billboard warning of death lurking at our doorstep.
Kai Wright is an editor at City Limits Magazine and a frequent writer on HIV issues.